Benjamin Franklin Tilley

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Benjamin Franklin Tilley
Benjamin Franklin Tilley
Born (1848-03-29)March 29, 1848
Bristol, Rhode Island
Died March 18, 1907(1907-03-18) (aged 58)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1863–1907
Rank Rear Admiral
Commands held USS Bancroft
USS Newport
USS Vicksburg
USS Abarenda
USS Iowa
Commandant of U.S. Naval Station Tutuila
Commandant of League Island Naval Yard
Other work Acting-Governor of American Samoa

Benjamin Franklin Tilley (March 29, 1848 – March 18, 1907), often known as B. F. Tilley, was a career officer in the United States Navy who served from the end of the American Civil War through the Spanish–American War. He is best remembered as the first Acting-Governor of American Samoa, as well as the territory's first Naval governor.[1]

Tilley entered the United States Naval Academy during the height of the Civil War. Graduating after the conflict, he gradually rose through the ranks. As a lieutenant, he participated in the United States military's crackdown against workers in the wake of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. During the 1891 Chilean Civil War, Tilley and a small contingent of sailors and marines defended the American consulate in Santiago, Chile. As a commander during the Spanish-American War, Tilley and his gunship, the USS Newport, successfully captured two Spanish Navy ships. After the war, Tilley was made the first acting-Governor of Tutuila and Manua (later called American Samoa) and set legal and administrative precedents for the new territory. Near the conclusion of his 41 years of service, he was promoted to rear admiral, but died shortly afterwards from pneumonia.

Early life and naval career[edit]

Benjamin Franklin Tilley was born March 29, 1848, the sixth of nine children, in Bristol, Rhode Island.[2] During the American Civil War, Tilley enrolled in the United States Naval Academy on September 22, 1863, at the age of 15.[3] The war forced the school to relocate from Annapolis, Maryland (then held by the Confederacy) to Newport, Rhode Island. In 1866 he graduated first in his class,[4] going on to serve as a midshipman first on board the USS Franklin, and then the USS Frolic. Tilley spent three years serving on board the Frolic, eventually being promoted to ensign. His next assignment was on board the USS Lancaster, where he was promoted twice: first to master in 1870 and then to lieutenant in 1871. From 1872 to 1875, Tilley served on board the USS Pensacola in the South Pacific. After the Pensacola, he served briefly on board the USS New Hampshire and then spent two years serving on the USS Hartford.[3]

Railroad strike of 1877[edit]

In July 1877, a violent railroad strike began in Martinsburg, West Virginia, sparking riots in other American cities such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. In response, President Rutherford B. Hayes authorized the use of the military to put down the rioting. During the crisis, Tilley was temporarily transferred to the USS Plymouth, sailing up the Potomac River to Washington, D.C. Military leaders feared rioters from Baltimore could travel to Washington to seize or damage vulnerable government targets. The troops defending Washington, including army, navy, and marines, were organized into a battalion of seven companies; Tilley was placed in command of Company C. The precautions proved to be unnecessary, as the expected wave of rioters never materialized following the military's quashing of the strikers in Baltimore. Within a short time, the riots in other cities were also quashed.[5]

Navy Career
Midshipman - 1867
1867–1868 USS Franklin
1868–1869 USS Frolic
Ensign - 1868
1869–1872 USS Lancaster
Master - 1870
Lieutenant - 1871
1873–1875 USS Pensacola
1875 USS New Hampshire
1875–1877 USS Hartford
1877 USS Plymouth
1877–1878 USS Powhatan
1879–1881 United States Naval Academy
1881 USS Standish
1882 United States Naval Academy
1882–1885 USS Tennessee
1885–1889 United States Naval Academy
Lieutenant Commander - September 1887
1889–1890 Washington Navy Yard
1890–1893 USS San Francisco
1893–1897 United States Naval Academy
1896 USS Bancroft
Commander - September 1896
1897 Naval War College
1897–1898 USS Newport
1898 Naval Station Newport
1898–1899 USS Vicksburg
1899–1901 USS Abarenda
U.S. Naval Station Tutuila
Captain - October 1901
1902–1905 Mare Island Naval Shipyard
1905–1907 USS Iowa
1907 Philadelphia Naval Shipyard
Rear Admiral - February 24, 1907

After the strike, Tilley was transferred to the flagship USS Powhatan, before requesting to take a six-month leave so that he could marry. On June 6, 1878, Tilley married Emily Edelin Williamson, the daughter of a Navy surgeon and left with her on an extended honeymoon in Europe.[6] On his return to duty, Tilley served in the United States Naval Academy and remained there, either in a classroom or on a training ship, until 1882. For the next three years, Tilley served on board the USS Tennessee.[3] In 1885, Tilley was promoted to lieutenant commander and returned to teach at the academy. During his tenure there, he was appointed head of two departments: first the Department of Astronomy, Navigation, and Surveying and then transferred to the Department of Mechanical Drawing. In September 1889, he moved to the Washington Naval Yard to teach ordnance.[7]

Chilean Civil War[edit]

USS San Francisco in the 1890s

In 1890, Tilley was transferred to San Francisco, California to help test the newly built USS San Francisco and to become her executive officer.[8] During the 1891 Chilean Civil War, the San Francisco transported troops to the port of Valparaíso, from where they could move on to protect the American consulate in the capital, Santiago. When insurgents captured the city, Tilley and a force of 100 men remained to defend the consulate.[9] After the war, Tilley returned to the naval academy as head of the astronomy and navigation department.[10] In 1896, he took command of the USS Bancroft and sailed on an inspection tour of naval yards along the east coast of the United States.[11] That October, he was promoted to commander.[12] The following year, Tilley was given command of the USS Newport to sail to Nicaragua to evaluate the progress of the isthmus canal commission.

Spanish–American War[edit]

On April 23, 1898, Spain declared war on the United States in response to American efforts to support Cuban independence. Tilley, still in command of the Newport, was in the Caribbean and in the heart of the conflict. Two days after the United States responded with its own declaration of war against Spain, on April 27, Tilley captured the Spanish Navy's sloop Paquete and schooner Pireno.[13] Tilley participated in the naval blockade of Santiago de Cuba, but missed the subsequent Battle of Santiago de Cuba as the Newport was refueling at Guantánamo Bay when fighting broke out. Toward the end of the war, Tilley was responsible for shelling the Cuban port of Manzanillo.[14] Over the months of fighting, Tilley and the Newport assisted in the capture of nine Spanish vessels. At the conclusion of the war, he was transferred to the Newport Naval Yard,[15] before being given the command of the USS Vicksburg in October.[16]

Commandant of U.S. Naval Station Tutuila[edit]

The United States first expressed interest in building a naval station at Pago Pago, Samoa in 1872 at the behest of Henry A. Peirce, the United States Minister to Hawaii. A treaty to that effect was written and submitted, but it was not approved by the United States Senate.[17] Six years later, on February 13, 1878, a separate treaty was ratified by the Senate that granted the Samoan government diplomatic recognition and reaffirmed permission to build a naval station in the country.[18] Although there were no further political obstacles, funding for the station was not allocated and only a small coaling station was built on the island. Construction of the naval station did not begin until twenty years later, in 1898, led by civilian contractors. In early 1899, Tilley was assigned the task of overseeing the station construction and becoming its first commandant. He was also put in command of a collier, the USS Abarenda, which would transport steel and coal to the construction site and to serve as the first station ship. After a long voyage, Tilley took on his new post on August 13, 1899.[19]

Even before Tilley arrived in Samoa, the political situation there was shifting. The Second Samoan Civil War had recently ended, leaving the nation without a functioning central government. The United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany had competing strategic or economic interests in the region. On June 10, 1899, the Western powers signed the Treaty of Berlin, which partitioned Samoa in two. The eastern part, with Tutuila as the largest island, was placed under the control of the United States. The larger and historically dominant western part was given to Germany. Under this treaty, the British government relinquished its claims over the region in exchange for certain concessions from Germany. News of this arrangement did not reach Tilley and the islands until December 6, 1899.[19]

After learning of the agreement, Tilley notified the local chiefs and asserted nominal United States control, but a formal decision on how the United States government would manage the territory had not yet been made. The construction of the naval base remained Tilley's primary responsibility, and he was dispatched to pick up additional supplies and coal at Auckland, New Zealand.[19] Less than a month after returning, on February 19, 1900, President William McKinley placed the territory under the control of the United States Navy. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Charles H. Allen named Tilley commandant of United States Naval Station Tutuila with a charter to "cultivate friendly relations with the natives".[19]

Acting Governor of Tutuila[edit]

Map of American Samoa. Swains Island was not added to the territory until 1925.

Tilley's first task in his new role was to negotiate a deed of cession with the local powers to ensure a formal and peaceful transfer of control to the United States. With the partitioning of Samoa, two regional governments remained on Tutuila, which had been subordinated to a government on the western (and now German-controlled) island of Upolu. Both of these governments were favorable toward the cession. The inhabitants of the islands of Taʻu, Ofu and Olosega—together known as Manu'a—70 miles (110 km) to the east, were politically separate from Tutuila. On March 12, 1900, Tilley traveled to Taʻu to meet with the local king, Tui Manua Elisala. Ultimately, the king agreed to cede some sovereignty to the United States, but refused to consider full cession. The deed of cession, signed on April 17, 1900, listed Manu'a as part of the United States' new territory, but without the signature of its representative. In it, Tilley was named Acting Governor; the territory would not have an official governor until the title was given to Governor Edmund Beardsley Underwood in 1905. Manu'a would not agree to sign the deed until 1904, after negotiating concessions from the United States.[20]

As Acting Governor, Tilley's first acts were to impose a duty on imports to the territory, ban the sale of alcohol to the local population (but not Americans), and forbid the sale of Samoan lands to non-Samoans. On May 1, 1900, he proclaimed that the laws of the United States were in force in the territory, but that Samoan laws that did not conflict with US law would remain in effect. He partitioned the territory into three districts, along the historical divisions implicitly acknowledged in the deed of cession: the two governments on Tutuila and the third comprising the islands of Manu'a, which still did not regard themselves as part of the territory. Over the next year, Tilley regulated firearms, enforced mandatory registrations of births, deaths, and marriages, levied taxes, and made the sabbath a public holiday. For defense and police, Tilley created a small militia of native Samoans, called the Fita Fita Guard. The native volunteers in this force were trained at the naval station by a sergeant of the United States Marine Corps.[21]

During Tilley's administration problems arose because of conflicting Samoan and American laws. In one case, a native had caught and eaten a skipjack, a sacred fish which, under Samoan law, could only be eaten with the permission of a local chief. Traditional punishment decreed that the offender's house should be burned down, his crops uprooted, and he should be exiled from the territory. The native challenged his punishment under the American legal system however, resulting in the arrest of the chief responsible for ordering the destruction of his property. In a criminal proceeding on which Tilley sat as judge, the chief was sentenced to a year of house arrest and ordered to pay compensation for the destroyed property. There were similar issues with Samoan customs not blending well with the newly introduced American political divisions in the territory. For example, although the territory's three district governors had equal authority, they were of differing Samoan social status. This disparity made decision-making more difficult and caused social tensions.[22] Despite these problems, Tilley was well-considered by the locals. On December 18, 1900, the local chiefs sent a letter of congratulations on the re-election of President McKinley. In this letter, they said of Tilley "... you gave us a leader, a Governor, a High Chief, whom we have learned to love and respect".[21]

Tilley took leave in June 1901 to return to Washington, leaving E. J. Dorn in command. Dorn subsequently had medical issues and was replaced by J. L. Jayne in October. That month, an anonymous complaint was made to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Frank W. Hackett against Commandant Tilley, alleging immorality and drunkenness.[23] Almost simultaneously, Tilley was promoted to captain by President Theodore Roosevelt.[24] Tilley returned to Samoa on November 7, 1901 with his wife, and two days later was given a court martial. The trial lasted four days and only one witness was called for the prosecution. Ultimately, Tilley was acquitted. Despite this, Captain Uriel Sebree was appointed as commandant on November 27, 1901.[25] Tilley and his wife returned to the United States the following month.[23]

Sebree later remarked of his predecessor that he had "great ability, kindness, tact and sound common sense".[25] Unlike Sebree, who was concerned that he did not have a legal mandate to govern, Tilley was not shy about enacting legislation and being the de facto leader of the territory. Although the deed of cession recognized his authority and gave him the title of Acting Governor, as far as the United States government was concerned, he was officially responsible only for the naval station.[26] As the first naval governor, Tilley laid the groundwork for much of the future governance of the territory, which did not yet even have a formal name. The American Samoa government includes Tilley and the other pre-1905 station commandants in its list of territorial governors.[2]

Later career and death[edit]

Tilley's next assignment, in March 1902, was as captain of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California.[27] He remained in this post for three years before being assigned to the USS Iowa on January 11, 1905.[28] Two years later, on February 23, 1907, Tilley was made commandant of League Island Naval Yard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was promoted to rear admiral the following day. Less than a month later, on March 18, 1907, Tilley died of pneumonia.[29] At the end of the year, Tilley was one of 322 men and women listed by the Washington Post as "foremost in their various callings" that had died in 1907.[30] Tilley was survived by one son and two daughters. His son, Benjamin Franklin Tilley, Jr., also entered the Navy and retired with the rank of lieutenant commander.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sorensen, Stan (2008-06-13). "Historical Notes, page 2" (PDF). Tapuitea Volume III, No. 24. Retrieved 2011-08-16. 
  2. ^ a b c Hamersly, Lewis Randolph (1898). The Records of Living Officers of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps (PDF) (6th ed.). New York: L. R. Hamersly and co. p. 106. Retrieved 2007-04-13. 
  3. ^ "Miscellaneous". The New York Times. 1866-07-21. p. 6. 
  4. ^ C., H. C. (January 1879). "The Naval Brigade and the Marine Battalions in the Labor Strikes of 1877". United Service 1 (1): pp. 115–130. 
  5. ^ "Society Weddings". Washington Post. 1878-06-06. p. 4. 
  6. ^ "Naval Academy Affairs". The Sun. 1885-09-29. p. Supplement 1. ; "The Army and Navy". Washington Post. 1889-09-22. p. 12. ; "The Army and Navy News". The New York Times. 1889-12-29. p. 16. 
  7. ^ "Nineteen Knots and Over". The New York Times. 1890-08-28. p. 1. 
  8. ^ "Santiago Capitulates". Chicago Daily Tribune. 1891-08-30. p. 1. 
  9. ^ "Notes from Annapolis". The New York Times. 1893-08-27. p. 16. 
  10. ^ "News from the Naval Academy". The New York Times. 1896-06-07. p. 21. 
  11. ^ "The United Service". The New York Times. 1896-10-21. p. 3. 
  12. ^ "The Panama's Valuation". Los Angeles Times. 1898-04-27. p. 3. 
  13. ^ Dyal, Donald H. (1996). Historical Dictionary of the Spanish American War. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 238–239. ISBN 0-313-28852-6. 
  14. ^ "Naval Orders". Washington Post. 1898-10-25. p. 4. 
  15. ^ "The United Service". The New York Times. 1898-10-21. p. 4. 
  16. ^ Gray, J. A. C. (1960). Amerika Samoa: History of American Samoa and Its United States Naval Administration. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute. p. 58. 
  17. ^ Gray, J. A. C. (1960). Amerika Samoa: History of American Samoa and Its United States Naval Administration. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute. pp. 64–66. 
  18. ^ a b c d Gray, J. A. C. (1960). Amerika Samoa: History of American Samoa and Its United States Naval Administration. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute. pp. 105–108. 
  19. ^ Gray, J. A. C. (1960). Amerika Samoa: History of American Samoa and Its United States Naval Administration. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute. pp. 157–158. 
  20. ^ a b Gray, J. A. C. (1960). Amerika Samoa: History of American Samoa and Its United States Naval Administration. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute. pp. 125–128. 
  21. ^ Gray, J. A. C. (1960). Amerika Samoa: History of American Samoa and Its United States Naval Administration. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute. pp. 132–134. 
  22. ^ a b Gray, J. A. C. (1960). Amerika Samoa: History of American Samoa and Its United States Naval Administration. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute. pp. 137–139. 
  23. ^ "To Be Captain in the Navy". The New York Times. 1901-10-08. p. 6. 
  24. ^ a b Sebree, Uriel (1902-11-27). "Progress in American Samoa". The Independent 54 (2817): pp. 2811–2822. 
  25. ^ Gray, J. A. C. (1960). Amerika Samoa: History of American Samoa and Its United States Naval Administration. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute. pp. 150–151. 
  26. ^ "Assignment for Funston". Washington Post. 1902-03-18. p. 9. 
  27. ^ "The United Service". The New York Times. 1905-01-15. p. 5. 
  28. ^ "Death of Admiral Tilley". Washington Post. 1907-03-19. p. 3. 
  29. ^ "The Silent Reaper's Harvest of the Great". Washington Post. 1907-12-29. p. MS8. 
  30. ^ "Mrs. Emily Tilley Dies at Annapolis". Washington Post. 1931-04-22. p. 20. 


  • Gray, J. A. C. (1960). Amerika Samoa: History of American Samoa and Its United States Naval Administration. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute. OCLC 498821. 
Military offices
First Naval Governor of American Samoa
February 17, 1900–November 27, 1901
Succeeded by
Uriel Sebree